Teaching Taste

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman perform at the Concert for Diana in London in 2007.

Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman perform at the Concert for Diana in London in 2007. Source: Dave Hogan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Growing up, my parents exposed my brother and me to all sorts of musical gems — Beethoven and Debussy, Webber and Hammerstein, Elvis and The Beatles. I knew who Sarah Brightman was long before I was even vaguely familiar with New Kids on the Block. I can remember dressing up like an opera singer and crooning "Memories," with maudlin passion, from our upstairs balcony. And I was moved to tears on more than one occasion during performances of Phantom, Les Mis, West Side, Sound of Music, Evita, you name it. My parents had a direct impact on my appreciation of music — and all things cultural, actually. In essence, they gave me taste.

Justin Davidson is the classical music critic for New York magazine. He hoped he could teach his son, Milo, good taste, too. Milo is ten, and already loves Bobby McFerrin. So far, so good.

Have you tried to teach your children to have musical, cultural or artistic taste? How did it go?

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I am an engineer at a mid-sized engineering firm in the midwest. When I graduated from my Alma Mater, technical writing classes were required. This requirement was deleted several years ago. While the engineers being turned out are still technically excellent, I've been spending more and more time teaching the new engineers how to write a legible report. I'm all for contributing to Engineers Without Borders and Social Studies Classes, but please teach them the basics first.

Sent by Laurel | 3:26 PM | 9-9-2008

I have gone to school for Museum Studies and have been involved with Art Museums throughout my adult life. What I find very important, at least with art, is exposing my child to art and making her feel comfortable going to museums and symphonies. So many people do not even feel comfortable walking into an art gallery or museum because they feel these cultural institutions are only for a certain, upper class. It's more important for my daughter to not feel this way than to force her to have "good taste".

Sent by Kaylen Williams | 3:46 PM | 9-9-2008

of course "good taste" is relative but our home was filled with musical variety. Classical, new age, rock, blues (minus hip hop and jazz...sorry not our taste) and our girls, now 23 and 25 years love all flavors of music. Very eclectic taste.

Sent by robbyn smith | 3:47 PM | 9-9-2008

I think it is important to have any taste in general, not necessarily "good taste". It seems too many people simply coast through the norm of popular music without finding what speaks to them on a personal level.

My motto; "At least I've got taste, maybe not good taste, but taste none the less."

Sent by Matt | 3:47 PM | 9-9-2008

While in middle school near Buffalo,N.Y.,my class was taken to the Buffalo Philharmonic on a fairly regular basis. This was during the tenure of Leonard Bernstein and his Concerts for young people.Although both my grandparents were musicians, and my mother played the piano, I cannot have hoped for a more wonderful intrduction and appreciation of classical music.I love it to this day.

Sent by Sharon Redgrave | 3:48 PM | 9-9-2008

My husband is a Suzuki violin teacher of over 40 students, including our son, who has been learning to play violin ever since he could stand. The other day he called me into our living room and told me to sit in the middle of the room so that I could hear a "really cool part of a Mozart symphony." Oftentimes, in the car, he'll be humming one of his Suzuki tunes. He also likes the Clash and REM. His favorite group is the Ramones. Never underestimate a child's abilities! When we expose children to a variety of musical genres, we are nurturing that child's soul--"good taste"--whatever that is--naturally comes to kind, compassionate individuals.

Sent by Kara Ryan-Johnson | 3:48 PM | 9-9-2008

It made my heart glad when my toddler son hummed the opening to the NPR news. Now that he has grown we have shared Bach and Beck ! We have grown together.

Sent by Paul | 3:48 PM | 9-9-2008

My parents took me to many operas and musicals when I was a child.

I think its important to make sure that you aren't forcing your kid to do something they do not want to do. If they are open to trying new things, then it seems like a good idea to take them to see a symphony, etc.

But it should be said that your child will make their own opinions about music, and those develop and change throughout the childs life. If you like opera and your kid doesn't, they should not be punished for having an opinion thats different.

The idea of getting your child to "have good taste" is intrinsically flawed in that good taste is a matter of opinion. Children should be taught that they are free to make their own opinions, and that whatever they decide is okay.

Also, as a young person who remembers her upbringing.... Music and media designed for children is very often too remedial for many kids. I'm convinced lots of child oreiented media is pointing kids in the wrong direction and giving them "kid blinders", and exposing them to ALL kinds of media will get them to develop in a more balanced way.

Thanks!

Sent by A. Paige Kruger | 3:49 PM | 9-9-2008

I was raised in a family (in the 50s) that listened to classical music and opera all the time. I loved Milton Cross at the Met on Sat. (Sun?). I had my own records of Peter and the Wolf with Basil Rathbone and Said the Piano to the Harpsichord. I adored them both.
At 13 I discovered, on my own, jazz and R&B to my parents' horror. But I have great taste in all genres. Isn't Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones-worship evidence of good taste?

Sent by polly Babcock | 3:49 PM | 9-9-2008

As a child my parents introduced me to Classical music and I listened to it during car trips or around the house. While I grew up (in an effort to not offend them) I only listened to classical music. Once I hit my teenage years I stopped listening to much classical music in favor of rock and techno. Now as a college student I find myself often drawn to classical music because of a depth that I can't find in modern rock.

Sent by Steven Hubbard | 3:50 PM | 9-9-2008

My mother brought me up on classical music only. I hated it. At the age of 13 I started singing opera as a joke, making fun of the vibrato thereafter, it developed into a career!

Sent by sara | 3:51 PM | 9-9-2008

My husband is an 'Experimental Filmmaker' and our son started at an early age watching abstract and conceptual films and videos that have no story-line. He is now 11 and is quite the film critic - offering comments about composition, lighting and other formal elements of the film viewing experience that other kids his age and many adults do not notice.

Sent by Mary Zebell | 3:51 PM | 9-9-2008

I am an instrumental music teacher and professional musician. Our two daughters, now grown have very wide interests in art and music. They enjoy music, theater and art from the avante-garde to Romantic to bubble gum and everything in between. From birth they heard all kinds of music in the house. Through singing in choirs, playing instruments and performing in plays they learned what it is like to be IN the literature as well as listen and watch. Their lives are far richer for this variety of experiences.

My wife and I both played in a community band. We used to hire a sitter to come to our concerts. They have fond memories of these summer evenings. They also enjoyed very much coming to see the Rhythm and Blues band I play in. They associate music with pleasant experiences. Singing psalms in Wells Cathedral on a church choir trip was a thrilling. On the same trip, our elder daughter dragged us through Paris to see Jim Morrison's grave.

Sent by Ken Foster | 3:52 PM | 9-9-2008

I knew I was making strides in teaching my kids good taste when my 7 year old son told his grandpa that the men on his Mount Rushmore shirt were the King Singers!
I had a preschool play group(3-4 little boys!) in my home that insisted on listening to Berstein narrating Peter and the Wolf every day.
By simply making symphonic or choral music part of our life style, I see many evidences that my children enjoy--not just tolerate--"good taste."

Sent by Melanie in Utah | 3:53 PM | 9-9-2008

I take some offense to the use of the phrase "good taste" since taste is really subjective, no?
Also, funny enough, when I was younger I use to take my mother to classical concerts instead of vice verse.

Sent by cindy | 3:54 PM | 9-9-2008

I was raised immersed in appreciating a vast range of genre's of music. From Vivaldi to Pink Floyd. My parents were successful in helping me appreciate and then fall in love with all kinds of music. As an adult I play both the piano and guitar. I think that when parents incorporate music in to their life, it rubs off on kids. Also, it teaches kids that there are all kinds of music to appreciate.

Sent by Stephanie, Salt Lake City | 3:54 PM | 9-9-2008

When my son was young he listened to what I listened to. His nursery school teacher loved to tell the story about his "show and tell" treasure of a 78 record of "Wachtet Auf." He is now a musican in Indianapolis heading Il Trubadore.

Sent by Barbara Kerr Scott | 3:55 PM | 9-9-2008

If I want my children to appreciate Chinese literature, it would certainly make sense to start by teaching them Chinese.

I am a professional musicaian, and have been "forcing" my daughter to play vioin since she was five (she's 8 now). Most of the time she says she doesn't like it. However, I am watching her love of music grow, as well witnessing accelerated development of her ear, time, and understanding of music, singing, dancing, and their place in culture.

I believe I am "forcing" the tools on her that will allow her to make choices in the future that she could not appreciate now.

We don't have to teach taste, but we do need to give them tools to understand the languages of art and expression. We don't have to tell them which books are good, but we do still teach them to read.

Our failure to do so leads to the inability to discern between substantial work and pure "pop" image. A non-English speaker cannot tell the dirrerence between a reading of Sponge Bob and Shakespeare.

Sent by griff bear from portland, OR | 3:56 PM | 9-9-2008

Hello,

My 5 year old daughter's life, memorization wellbeing is enhanced by attending performances and listening to many forms of music - symphony, musicals, rock bands, free concerts in the park, dance, Grateful Dead cover bands. I will risk "adult theme" exposure and the need to explain it for the other benefits received. She loves to use "opera" in lieu of speaking.

Give kids some control over music - they will not just pick what Disney promotes. We play "CD Roulette" in our car where she hands me any CD and I play a song. In a 4 hour trip, we'll canvas U2, Hanna Montana, Spanish guitar, Beck, Taj Mahal, ACDC, Miles Davis, Merle Haggard, Pavarotti. The game is as fun for me as for her. I have yet to go "IPOD" because of the fun of "spinning a disk" - so to speak.

Sent by Ann | 3:57 PM | 9-9-2008

I took my 4 year old grandson to an Oreogn Synphony special concert for children. He was so excited that he got up in the aisle and pretended he was conducting. I think it was a fabulous introduction of classical music on a level that he could understand

Sent by Judy Malka | 3:57 PM | 9-9-2008

When I was VERY young my sister and I had adjoining rooms wiht a common door - may parents would play "the Nutcraker Suite" and "Swan Lake" - some Chopin etc. In the past couple of years I had the opportunity to meet Bobby Ware of the Greatful Dead in a soclial setting - we began discussing our upbring - while he is nearly adecade older than me - we found that our parents had introduced us to much of the same classical music and we still are very fond of it. I love rock - blues, country et al. In the immortal words of the great Satchmo when asked what type of music he liked - he replied "GOOD!".

Sent by Rollie Morshead | 3:58 PM | 9-9-2008

If I had to rely on my parents to teach me good taste (at least musically), then I'd be listening to Barry Manilow.

Thankfully, I had elder members of my family, college radio in the 1980s and 1990s, and now Pandora.com.

My grandmother and great-uncle (her brother) exposed me to a lot of MGM musicals, and through that to a lot of great American pop by Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, etc ... but also to the jazz compositions of Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, and so on, which has developed into a years-long love affair with jazz.

College radio, much like public radio, exposed me to a lot of new and different music than what was playing on the commercial stations throughout the 80s and 90s; a lot of indie and punk rock, reggae and ska; essentially, everything but arena rock and hair metal bands.

And now, through the miracles of technology and the Music Genome Project, Pandora.com is exposing me to even more music. By seeding a station with a few bands or songs, Pandora uses predictive technology to present other music that I may like ... and through that technology, I have definitely discovered a host of new bands that I might never have discovered otherwise.

If/when I ever have kids, I hope to expose them to a wide variety of musical genres in the hopes that they will also acquire a broadbased and eclectic sense of musical taste, rather than becoming locked in to one style of commercially produced garbage that appeals only to the lowest common denominator, rather than challenging the listener.

Sent by Steven L. Sheffield | 3:59 PM | 9-9-2008

We live in a fairly rural city of Northern California. My son who is 13 and my daughter who is 15 are both in a children's choir. They have been in for 7 years. They sing in many languages, Check, German,Serbian,French, Spanish,African, etc. They also are exposed to different genres of music from folk to classical, traditional, etc. Last year they performed the opera Amahl and the Night Visitor. They now both love great music of all kinds and have a much larger musical" vocabulary "than their friends. This will be a part of their lives forever more

Sent by Kim Tichinin | 4:00 PM | 9-9-2008

As a former assistant director at an art museum, I came to believe exposure without a parental lecture is the most important factor. I witnessed many parents bringing their children to the museum and try to "educate" them about each piece of art work. Almost invariably, the information given was wrong and the children suffered boring, negative experiences. Some studies I read at the time said they were most likely to have more positive experiences with an aunt or uncle, close family friends -- anyone other than their parents.

Sent by Roy Davis | 4:00 PM | 9-9-2008

I live in Salem Oregon home of one of the finest music education programs in the public schools in the nation. Our local orchestras and choirs have won many awards including several Grammies and were asked to play in China during the Olympics.
My twin daughters were exposed to music from elementary school on at school, at home and in church. They are now in their twenties and both have a great appreciation of classical and "fine" music of all kinds as well as jazz, blues and more. At home they listened to opera,Beethoven, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Holly and Simon and Garfunkel and much more. They have both had voice and music lessons and we spent many dollars and many hours on their music education. I believe that the exposure to music from an early age has made a great difference in my girls lives. Yes you can teach taste, but more importantly, music education teaches much, much more. One daughter is a college graduate and the other is currently still in college. They both are bright and interesting women who can speak easily on many topics and have intellectual depths far beyond many people their age. I cn't speak highly enough of the value of music education in any child's life.

Sent by Carol | 4:03 PM | 9-9-2008

Hi Neal-

I had the good fortune of growing up in Yosemite National Park. My parents would make rather frequent trips with me to the San Francisco Symphony . It was a long trip, made longer in our Volkswagen bus, but they were magical. Many years later I realized that I'd seen Yo-Yo Ma live, and while my seat was not that great, it made a large impression. These trips were often excuses to see movies as well, and not mainstream movies. I appreciated today's show, it was bit down memory lane. My children do call classical "mom's music" but recently my son heard a little riff and made the connection with something "modern."

-Sarah Hendrickson

Sent by Sarah Hendrickon | 4:05 PM | 9-9-2008

I am a former rock radio d.j. turned homeschooler of 3 daughters: aged 13, 8 and 6. The only contemporary music they have ever been exposed to is on the overhead system at the grocery store and the occasional booming of the monster truck behind us in traffic...impressive. *scoff*

We are on a complete "fast" from anything we deem mediocre, and that's how you *instill* good taste in a child; you can't *teach* it.

Our home and car are filled ONLY with the compositions of Bach and Mozart, the skillful artistry of artists such as Bocelli and Romero, and on the lighter side, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Alison Krauss, and Bud and Travis.

The fruit of our efforts these many years is that my 6 year old hums the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute instead of anything Britney is belting; my 8 year old deems today's standards as "out of tune;" and my 13 year old studies the violin and is working a concerto by Viotti.

The bottom line is that Twinkies are easier to eat than veggies, so if both are made available, which do you think a child will choose?

Sent by Robin Morales | 4:10 PM | 9-9-2008

Just the other day, my son (11) and I had a 'discussion' about what station to have the radio on. He is adamant that when he grows up he will NEVER listen to NPR. I told him I told my mom the same thing at when I was 11. I've always exposed him to many kinds of music, dragging him to concerts, and insisting on listening to Symphony Cast. To my delight, (and his surprise) when he was making a mix cd, many of the songs he wanted were already in my collection from Michael Jackson, to Carlos Santana to Barenaked Ladies to Weird Al. He has his own taste - but he certainly knows what's out there.

Sent by Sylvia Selgestad | 4:21 PM | 9-9-2008

Teaching taste? Maybe. I grew up in a theater. I've seen every musical from the late seventies through about 1990. I think that it influenced my taste to the degree that I will NEVER NEVER NEVER watch another musical again. "When yer a Jet, yer a Jet"....If there is a Hell; it's Spanish Harlem as envisioned by Leonard Bernstein.
Ooh...In keeping with my "Hell" theme; I just had a horrifying vision of Sondheim spinning me on a spit. Well, it could be worse. I might have to listen to his music.
I appreciate the opportunity to vent. I mean everything I said but there is something to be said for early exposure to art. I play four instruments and I think that the exposure to that crap I was subjected to as a kid helped me develop a better understanding of complex rhythms and harmonies.
I know that many fans of "music"als will be offended by my comments. Mr. Davidson, I was paying attention to your "nose-bleed section comment" so... Here's what I'll do to atone: I still get great seats for many performances. I'll go to shows, my wife and I will switch seats with a parent and child....and then we're outa there before the first note!

Sent by Victor | 5:56 PM | 9-9-2008

Hello,
I really enjoyed today's show with Justin Davidson. I remember that he mentioned "music with insect sounds" and I am wondering what he was referring to? Can you help? Thank you.
Nicole

Sent by Nicole Jirout | 11:50 PM | 9-9-2008

We raised two sons both now in their mid-late twenties. Their interests and exposure to music at home were different - three years apart, with very different personalities and different "learning styles", they did not approach or appreciate music the same way. We could tell this, as parents do, from their very first months of life.

I have always been nothing but an eclectic music lover but not a player (a never used upright piano hand-me-down was our only instrument in the entire house). I listened to radio and to albums of all types ("kids music" by Raffi, Rimsky Korsakov by the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Thelonius Monk, John Lee Hooker, Tony Bennett and Traffic. But get this: when one of them was 3 or 4 I had recently bought Talking Heads "Stop Making Sense" vinyl - the live soundtrack of that wonderful movie concert. It was THAT album, with "Psycho Killer" and "Take Me To The River", which our little toddler crawled over to, climbed up against, and faced the front of the speakers for.

I don't remember doing anything overtly to stop him or enhance it for him. I did consider whether or not it was "OK" for a little child to be hearing such lyrics "Pyscho killer, que-ce que cet? Better run run run run run away" and decided it meant nothing to a three-year old.

What do you think this man became, with absolutely no push by us, his parents? A rock'n'roll musician writing and playing "prog rock" and an independent NYC recording studio owner, engineer & producer, age 26.

His "learning style" was always action / motion / touch et al -- a "physical learner". I believe that the music he loves now (actually ever since he was twelve and first took a guitar lesson) is connected directly to Talking Heads by a wire so straight and true, and so much the being of his own innate nature, that it would have always been "his music" but by chance he heard it in our living room at a developmental age where music syncs with some special neuronal structure already formed in the brain. Thus, he is one of those humans who "always knew what he wanted to do" in his life, even if he could not express it until he grew to college-aged.

What a lucky soul!! And we are proud of both of our kids, each their own self, their own person.

Sent by Bill Marston | 11:52 PM | 9-9-2008

I'm 23 years old and my parents brought me up listening to a wide variety of music. We'd listen to the "Forrest Gump" sound track in the car, along with songs by The Manhattan Transfer and Jimmy Buffett, but at home on the sterio we also listened to a lot of Musical soundtracks. My favorite to this day is from "Man of LaMancha".

As I've gotten older, I've branched out. I generally listen to Japanese Rock music now, but I have found that I have a serious soft spot still for oldies tunes, and I have a love for the work of Ms. Yoko Kanno's Jazz and Big Band songs coming out of Japan that I found on my own. My parents have even conceided on a few occasions that my new finds are even appealing to them. They were very surprised by the fact that I love Video Game music from RPGs, which tends to be classical/symphony music even though they had never brought me up on that. So they have influenced my tastes and I have influenced theirs.

Sent by Taikoubou | 5:52 AM | 9-10-2008

As a child, I distinctly remember being "dragged" to all sorts of performances. From the ballet, to Broadway musicals, to various art museums all over this nation. My parents wished to teach my sisters and I good taste. To be honest, I hated it! I wanted to play outside, watch TV, and listen to "good" music. I didn't need all this art crap! I distinctly remember falling asleep at the Lincoln Center in NYC during a ballet/orchestra performance. I even had to take piano lessons!
It's funny how life changes when you get older. My piano lessons turned into myself willingly taking up trumpet in my high school band. During my Jr. High days, A love of Broadway musicals bloomed after watching a riveting perfomance of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The older I got, the more I began to appreciate the level of performance these artists were achieving. Although my financial situation stops me from going to all sorts of performances, it doesn't stop me from listening to the occasional classical music. More importantly, I feel I can easily distinguish the the quality of musicianship and talent from the those who have no talent at all. I think I will someday make my kids take piano lessons after all!

Sent by Tim Folkert | 10:27 AM | 9-10-2008

I am not a parent, but was once a child! I think it's great that Justin is exposing his child to so much that many children are not exposed to growing up.

My parents never tried to "teach" me good taste, but they did influence my taste. Dad would put on classic rock during trips in the car to my grandmother's house and/or when we were cleaning the house on Saturdays - definitely not typical kid fare.

Also, my mom loves musicals and the performing arts. So, 10 years before I ever saw Les Miserables, I knew almost all the words to the entire musical because we had listened to the CD so many times.

To this day,I listen to Pink Floyd or The Who and remember fondly those car trips as a kid. Also, though I don't go nearly as often as I did in high school and college, I still love to take in a play or musical when time and money allow.

As Neal mentioned though, it's really the family time we had that lead me love both genres. How could I not love them when both genres bring back such fond memories?

Keep it up Justin! He may not rebel against your taste too much, if at all...

Sent by Renee | 1:38 PM | 9-10-2008

Just a few weeks ago I was offered two free tickets to the Vienna Philharmonic for the following day which I gratefully accepted although my husband would be too busy to accompany me. Therefore I told (not asked) my teenage soon who is in the full throttle of puberty that he would be accompanying me. He is musically talented and has heard a wide range of music since his birth including a wide variety of classical pieces, but his current interest does not involved GUSTAV MAHLER's Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Since he failed to get me a birthday present the previous month I told him this would be it. He tried his best to get out of it, but I didn't let him. To my surprise he loved it. Not one complaint during the entire performance. I took him for an ice cream after and he enjoyed discussing the performance. This inspired him and he thought of ways he could mix and scratch his current favorite raps with a new flare. It was so nice for me to see the curious quizitive son once again that seems to sometimes have disappeared into a rebellious rebel.

Sent by Amy Louise | 8:52 AM | 9-12-2008

Justin, I enjoyed your interview on NPR. Our local access cable station plays Classical Arts Showcase for hours each day. It has short excerpts of classical music, jazz, ballet, opera, etc. etc. One day I saw an excerpt of the opera WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I taped it for my almost-2-yr.-old granddaughter. I let the tape run and it was followed by Marcus Roberts playing Thelonius Monk and then a guitar concerto with Eduardo Fernandez as the soloist. I had no idea if my granddaughter would be interested, but she was riveted. She wanted to see it over and over. I talked to her about the instruments and the conductor and then bought her many books about the orchestra, its conductor and musicians and taped more classical music pieces. I bought her a DVD called Classical Baby: the Music Show. On hearing the aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" for the first time, she burst into tears. One day she had the idea of standing on the coffee table and conduction (with a baton) a CD that was playing. She does a lot of conducting and I became aware of the fact that she really "feels" the music. I don't really know how to follow up on this. I've bought her a toy violin, saxophone, harp, etc. She has lots of music and I've made her many tapes of excerpts from Classic Arts Showcase (I think this is a wonderful tool). I don't think of this as having anything to do with "taste", but I know it has enriched her life and perhaps is pointing the way to what will be important to her throughout her life.

Sent by Susan Goss | 12:03 AM | 9-14-2008